ABOVE PHOTO: Sam Tilley and others march in protest during a union demonstration, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. Protestors gathered in Tampa to march in demonstration against the Republican National Convention.
(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
By Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Union activists walked a political tightrope on Monday — voicing support for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid while lamenting adversarial attitudes toward organized labor in the state Democrats chose for the presidential nominating convention.
More than 300 people marched in the Charlotte Labor Day Parade a day before the kickoff of the Democratic National Convention, carrying signs, wearing matching shirts and chanting. In contrast to a protest the previous day, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly pro-Obama, family-friendly and generally low-key. The police presence was much lighter.
For Gil Crittendon, it was important for the marchers to show that organized labor is alive in North Carolina — even though the state has the lowest percentage of union members in the nation. The member of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 305 brought his four grandchildren with him for the walk in the hot sun.
“I want them to know what it’s like to stand up for your beliefs,” the Charlotte resident said. “A lot of people — politicians — want to break the unions. It’s important that we stick together and push back.”
The selection of Charlotte for the convention has been a sore point with union leaders. While organized labor gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that nominated Obama, many unions are refusing to financially support this week’s convention for reasons including North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers. Fundraising reports for the convention and host committee will not be released until 60 days after the convention.
It has been an uphill battle to organize unions in the South, where many people have negative attitudes toward them. Crittendon believes it has to do with workers’ fears that companies will move if employees unionize. As a counter example, he cited North Carolina’s textiles industry which had few unions but still saw its plants shuttered and jobs moved overseas.
“How do you think the middle class was built? With strong union wages. We fought for better working conditions. We fought for higher wages. Yet, people attack us for that,” he said.
He was walking in one of the many clusters of union members wearing shirts from their locals who were interspersed with marching bands for the parade around the central business district of North Carolina’s largest city.
Many carried pro-Obama signs. Danielle Rozelee was part of a group wearing light blue shirts with Obama’s picture on it. She works at a Freightliner plant in Mount Holly that assembles long-haul trucks.
She credits Obama with saving the jobs for many in her industry because of the auto bailout.
“He saved our jobs. He saved our industry. We’re going to save his job in November,” she said, repeating the slogan on her shirt. “We support him 100 percent.”
Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden addressed union crowds Monday in the Midwest as part of an effort to keep the group of reliably Democratic voters motivated. During a gathering in Ohio, Obama noted his decision to rescue automakers General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, a move that Romney opposed.
At an appearance in Detroit, Biden said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you, organized labor, are one of the reasons why this country is coming back. Folks, let me make something clear and say it to the press: America is better off today than they left us when they left.”
Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg argued that the middle class has been “crushed” by high joblessness, fallen incomes and rising gas prices under Obama.
“Americans aren’t better off than they were four years ago, and they deserve a president who recognizes that,” she said.
In Charlotte, about a dozen members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who have been camping out in a city-owned park, marched in the back of the parade. They held anti-Obama signs. When they reached the end of the parade route in the park where they are staying, one of the Occupy members got into a shouting match with an Obama supporter who ended up walking away.
Phil Wheeler, 70, came to Charlotte from Connecticut to serve as a convention delegate but marched in solidarity with other union members. He wiped the sweat from his forehead a few times. It was hot and humid, but Wheeler said he was going to stay with the march.
“I know people on the left who are criticizing the president. I understand their frustration. You can’t accomplish a lot when people are working against you. But do they really think they’re going to be better off with Romney?” asked the retired member of United Auto Workers Local 376 in Hartford, Conn.
He said the GOP agenda would hurt working class Americans.
“For unions and working people, there’s a big difference between Romney and Obama.”